Iran’s Nuclear Program and Turkey*

25 July 2013
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Iran has become one of the most important issues of international agenda due to its nuclear program and continues to preserve its importance because of this. The question is how Iran has come to occupy an important place on international agenda? Is Iran pursuing its nuclear program in breach of international treaties or what causes problems are its intentions concerning the use of its nuclear capabilities?

The History of Nuclear Technology and Iran

Nuclear weapon was recognized in the international arena first in 1945 when the United States of America (USA) attacked Japan. Following the USA, first the Soviet Union (USSR) in 1949, then the United Kingdom in 1952, then France in 1960 and finally China in 1964, demonstrated by nuclear detonations that they owned nuclear weapons. However, the policy that the United States had decided in the wake of the use of nuclear weapons in 1945 and brought to the agenda of the United Nations in its first meeting was to stem the production of nuclear weapons. Even though the USA held extensive talks with the USSR to that matter, it could not have prevented this country from producing nuclear weapons. Even though the use of nuclear weapons by the USSR demonstrated that the nuclear weapons would proliferate and the United States could not control this process, the United Stated had limited the selling of nuclear technology to other countries by American public or private institutions through passing unilateral a law in 1947. However, this policy could not stem the tide against the nuclearization of the world. The reason of this is the fact that countries like France, Canada and Germany, which developed nuclear technology, exported the technology to other countries such as Pakistan and India. Even the policy of stemming export of nuclear technology, whose production costs much, had been criticized at home. Faced with such a situation, the USA authorities, by delivering a speech in the General Assembly of the United States on December 8, 1953, stated that the entire world has the right of using nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. This also opened the way for exporting nuclear technology. President Eisenhower took some initiatives to develop relations with Iran within the framework of his doctrine on regional alliance. The USA signed nuclear cooperation agreements with Iran first in the middle of 1950s. Iran’s Shah had asked for closer cooperation with and more weapons from the United States by pointing out to (on the pretext of) Nasser of Egypt and the Soviet Union.

I think it would be appropriate to talk about the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) at this moment. This treaty had the following impact on countries: The number of countries which wanted to use their rights and obligations emanating from this treaty and to develop their nuclear technologies began to increase. According to the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which was signed in 1968 and entered into force in 1970, the countries which developed nuclear technology before January 1, 1967, would be entitled to have nuclear weapons. The nuclear enrichments that would take place after this date would proceed only without nuclear weapons. Well, if it was too important to have nuclear power, the question arises why countries gave up the right to have nuclear weapons and signed off to the NPT that entered into force in 1970? Why do some countries decide not to produce nuclear weapons while some other countries had already developed nuclear weapons? The answer of these questions is as follows: Nuclear science used to require sophisticated knowledge, infrastructure and high level education in the 1970s. Many countries signed off to this treaty knowing that they had not even had the capacity to produce nuclear energy and chose the way of using the benefits of nuclear technology by making clear that they did not have any intention to produce nuclear weapons. This was so because if countries accepted the status of being non-nuclear weapon country and complied with this, the countries that were entitled to have nuclear weapons would have to share their knowledge on nuclear technology with others. Otherwise, countries would not have the right to import this technology. In order to demonstrate their compliance with the terms of the treaty, the countries which are parties to the NPT recognize the inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Put another way, countries would have the right to import nuclear technology in return for the guarantee that they would not produce nuclear weapons.  

Iran and Nuclear Technology

The nuclear energy policies of Iran’s Shah failed because both Iran did not have nuclear knowhow and nuclear technology remained in the possession of great powers. The OPEC crisis following the end of Yom Kippur war caused an increase in oil prices four or five-folds as well as bolstered Iran’s self-confidence. Therefore, with the 1970s, Iran’s efforts to get nuclear energy increased dramatically.   


Feeling encouraged by the increasing oil revenues Iran had began to voice its intention to construct nuclear centrals in 20 years with the capacity of producing electric energy of 20.000 megawatts. We can offer the following example to make sense of the magnitude of 20.000 megawatts. The four reactors that will be constructed in Akkuyu will produce electric energy of 4.800 megawatts; and it was planned at that time that Iran would have reactors with the capacity of producing 400-600 megawatts, rather than reactors of 1.000 megawatts as it is possible today. Therefore, it had been meant to produce 20-25 nuclear infrastructures each having 5 to 7 centrals.  Seeing that a magnanimous pie had been in the making, both the USA and European countries knocked the door of Iran’s Shah. At that time, in the name of coming much closer to Iran, the USA offered Iran weapons, uranium enrichment and plutonium decomposition technologies. Many Iranians had been sent to Germany, England, Canada, France and the United States in order to make research in the field of nuclear technology. At that time there was an Iran that had been in close contact with the West.  

However, the “Islamic Revolution of Iran” in 1979 ended all such contacts and rapprochement. The Iran-Iraq war added insult to this injury. After coming to the head of the Iranian administration and adopting the discourse “neither the East nor the West, only the Islamic Republic”, Khomeini ended the nuclear works by citing the reason that such works perpetuated Iran’s dependency on the West. However, when the power shortages (energy problems) took place during the Iran-Iraq war, Rafsanjani, who had great influence on Khomeini, opened the way for the re-construction of the reactors by emphasizing the importance of nuclear energy.  Upon this, Iran had demanded first France and Germany and then Argentina, Sweden and India to complete nuclear constructions in Iran. Yet, each time it made its demands, it faced the USA obstacle. Therefore, Iran had begun to negotiate with the USSR in 1989 and the talks with Russia had been resumed in 1994 following the collapse of the communist bloc. During the visit of the Russian state company, which would construct the nuclear site, to Iran in 1995, an unplanned agreement was signed that many saw as Iran’s success. According to this agreement, in return for 1 billion US $, Russia had promised to complete the construction of nuclear reactors, left unfinished  by Germany, that would be modeled on the Russian reactors of VVER-1000, which are in essence of the same kind but have Russian technology. According to this agreement, the first of the two reactors would become operational in 2000; yet no progress has been achieved in this regard.  


Besides USSR, Iran had also held talks with China during the 1980s. Whether for its oil needs or its efforts to balance other powers in the region, China had given a special importance to its relations with Iran and signed an agreement with the Tehran administration concerning the development of Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity. With the advent of the 1990s, Iran has begun to be perceived as a threat by the USA and Israel due to its developing nuclear program, ballistic missile initiatives, and the Islamic nature of its administrative structure.  Against this background, the discovery of the uranium enrichment facilities in Iran that had been constructed by China since 1984 culminated with a crisis-process that would gradually escalate since 2002 and turn out to become multidimensional. Therefore, the fact that Iran kept its uranium enrichment efforts and technology in secret for 18 years resulted in the perception that Iran had some bad intentions in the background.

In the wake of this tense environment in 2002, the electoral victory of Ahmadinejad in 2005 and his discourse on wiping the Jews off the map caused anger and reactions in the West. With his coming to power, Ahmadinejad ended the suspension of the uranium enrichment activities between 2003 and 2005.

Israel’s Approach towards Iran’s Nuclear Program

In International Relations, there is a concept called “security state”. The states, which act on the basis of this concept, view every issue from the perspective of security and engage in threat evaluations concerning almost every event. Israel is one of those states, where there is the approach of “eradicating threats”, if not the concept of “dealing with threats”. In the evolution of this approach the role of who holds the presidency in the USA plays a great role. Israel is a state which cares more how it views the world and external developments than the other views and perspectives. Despite the fact that Israelis pay attention to how others think, Israel is a state which lives according to its own view. Indeed, what is meant with Israelis here is the “Israeli state”. However, some circles in some parts of the world identify the innocent Israeli citizens with the policies of the Israeli state and this makes those innocent people exposed to some negative attitudes. This cannot be accepted by anyone who has conscience. It is not right (appropriate) that any ordinary Israeli Jew pays the negative consequences of Netanyahu’s policies. This is an important subject that needs to be added to this discussion.


Asked about the magnitude of the costs that a possible attack against Iran would incur on Israel, Israeli rulers responded that “Yes, there is a cost of attacking Iran, yet there is also the costs of doing nothing.” That they expressed they would not sleep well if Iran got nuclear weapons is an indication of how important this issue is for Israel. However, we need to make it clear that no one, including even the Israeli rulers, knows “whether there is the possibility of Israel attacking Iran?” Therefore, words that can be said on this issue would not go beyond speculations. But it is not possible to overlook the probability that Israel - a state whose reflex to resort to force has been demonstrated by its reckless behavior towards Turkey during the Mavi Marmara incident–would resort to force.   


By the way, we have to add that the underground facilities of Iran would not change much because Israel and the USA, as a consequence of their cooperation, are now in possession of different kinds of bombs, of which the “Bunker Buster” that could destroy facilities’ in underground and those that could blast after penetrating deep into the soil, stand out. Serious articles were penned in that Israel either tested these missiles or bought them. In light of this information, we are of the view that Israel could organize an attack following its espionage activities concerning the whereabouts of Iran’s underground facilities. However, it needs to be stated that such attacks would not end Iran’s aspiration to produce nuclear weapons, only postpone it, for science and technology cannot be forgotten and destroyed. Iran could reconstruct those facilities again and again with the knowhow it owns.


Iran views any Israeli attack costly for two main reasons: First, Iran’s effort to be among the countries that could export nuclear technology to Third World countries or Islamic countries would be thwarted. Today, the number of countries able to export nuclear technology does not exceed a dozen and Iran wants to be included among these countries. Second, Iran does not want to be attacked for political concerns because it is known that Iran is not in a position to respond to any Israeli attack in the same way. Even if we assume that Israel attacks Iran, the possibility of Iran hitting Israel with the “Shahab” missiles, that have the range of reaching Israel, carrying conventional or chemical warheads is low. This is so because in case Iran hits Israel with its own missiles, no matter Israel would first attack Iran, it is likely that both the USA and Israel organize another counter-attack against Iran and inflict great damage. Therefore, since Iran knows that it cannot respond to any Israeli attack in the same way, it continuously tries to help create the perception that “if you attack me, I would make life unbearable for you”. Stated somehow differently, Iran is trying to show that it can still give damage to Israel by equipping Hamas, Hezbollah and some other networks with various arms and missiles and helping some organize suicide attacks.


It cannot be known whether states would act rationally in times of escalation. However, it is known that Israel has both the capacity and determination to attack Iran. Therefore, any Israeli attack would not be surprising.

Turkey’s Approach towards Iran’s Nuclear Program

The perception that the Tehran Declaration has brought into existence in the international arena is that in case Iran got nuclear weapons Turkey would not make this a problem. However, across the military and diplomatic circles, viz. the official state apparatus, there exists a degree of anxiety, let alone indifference towards Iran. This is to say that Turkey, in contrast to what western and American authorities seem to think, is not naive on Iran’s nuclear works. That Turkey and Iran have not fought since 1638 should not mean that Turkey would remain naive on Iran.  However, considering the bilateral relations at the grassroots level, it is seen that there exists a positive approach towards Iran on the part of Turkish society. This is so because the negative attitudes of Israel and the United States, which Turkish people view with discontent, towards Iran cause Turkish people to feel sympathy towards Ahmadinejad. In addition to this, the impact of the Islamic religion and the geographical proximity of the two countries cannot be ignored on the emergence of the Turkish people’ positive attitude towards Iran.  

There has been a balance between Iran and Turkey since the Treaty of Qasr-e Shirin (Treaty of Zuhab) of 1639. Apart from some minor border adjustments, there has not occurred any radical change or warlike situation between the two countries.  This is indeed a situation that emanates from the fact the two sides know each other very well. Iran having nuclear weapons would mean that this balanced has been tilted in Iran’s favor. Turkey would not aspire to see such a development occur. Therefore, Iran having nuclear weapons is a vital problem for Turkey. The Ankara administration has gotten involved in this issue thinking that the solution of this problem would only be possible through diplomacy. Knowing that the latest developments in the Middle East affect this process and other crises might follow the Syrian crisis, Turkey and Iran have not sidestepped their cooperation efforts in the nuclear field. Turkey needs to be incorporated into the P5+1 process because it knows Iran much better than others. Turkey needs to be directly involved in the process. This is important for Turkey’s security and the solution of the problem alike.

Turkey wants two things in its region: First, Iran should not have nuclear weapons; second, there should not be any military operation against Iran. In case there is a military operation, no one can foresee the consequences. That is why there is no way to solve this problem other than diplomacy, as important political figures in Turkey say. For this to happen, though, Iran’s security concerns should be understood well, Iran should be included in the security organizations in the Middle East and the feeling of mutual trust should be developed.

Tehran Declaration

Iran wants to enrich uranium by using its legal rights stemming from treaties. However, hiding the facilities for 18 years while saying that it wants to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes and the discovery of some new facilities during this process have caused suspicions to arouse in the international public opinion. With this tension in the background, it was proposed to Tehran that it would receive uranium enriched by 20 % in return for its giving up of all the uranium that it has so far enriched. In addition to France and Russia, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Muhammad el-Baradei, also supported this plan, yet no breakthrough had been achieved. When Iran expressed its concern¬ that the uranium enriched by 20 % might not be given to itself, el-Baradei proposed that: the uranium taken from Iran would be deposited in Turkey, a country that has close relations with Iran, and following the arrival of the uranium enriched by 20 % by France and Russia to Iran, the uranium deposited in Turkey would be transferred to the West. Right in the middle of this process, Turkey, together with Brazil, signed the “swap deal” with Iran in May 2010. This declaration was interpreted as a maneuvering action of Iran in response to the possibility that a new sanctions decision would be adopted by the United Nations Security Council. In relation to such developments, the United States applied to the United Nations Security Council for the implementation of the sanctions; the Security Council adopted the sanctions to be put on Iran in June with 12 members voting in favor, while Turkey and Iran cast no votes and Lebanon remained as an absentee. After all these developments, a new document had been found dated April 2010. In this document, it was seen that the US President Obama had demanded something from the President of Brazil concerning the Tehran declaration. After all, the Tehran Declaration reveals that more things had been achieved than what President Obama demanded, yet this chance had been missed.

Turkey put itself in the middle of this process which was initially started by Baradei.  The reason why Turkey signed the Tehran Declaration in this process and then voted against the UN Security Council resolution is that it wanted to prevent Iran from exploiting any deadlock in the settlement process. Iran had made it clear that it would sooner or later enrich uranium by 20 % in case this amount of uranium was not given to itself. In fact, Iran could succeed in enriching its uranium by 20 % one and half year after the Tehran Declaration had been rejected. That is to say that Iran could always take one step further in its favor whenever efforts to achieve any international settlement failed. In retrospect, the declaration has been the only document signed by Iran in 10-15 years. So far no country, including the EU-triad, succeeded in getting Iran to sign any document, going beyond verbal agreements.  Therefore, ignoring Iran’s signing of the Tehran Declaration meant missing of an historical opportunity to settle the problem through peaceful ways. To reiterate, Turkey has valued this agreement to make sure that Iran does not exploit any environment of non-settlement. If Turkey had voted “yes” in the Security Council, it would have been in the middle of a great contradiction.  



In the reports of the IAEA, it was stated that it was impossible to demonstrate Iran’s efforts to produce nuclear weapons because Iran’s facilities were kept close to inspection. It was even stated in the same report that there was no way ensure that Iran had not produced nuclear weapons. Iran did not fail to fulfill its obligations emanating from the older protocol of the IAEA but also continue to obstruct the strengthened inspection mechanisms of the new additional protocol. The reports of IAEA on Iran, particularly after the former head of the Agency, el-Baradei, has been written in such a way to arouse suspicions. This might stem either from the change of the Secretary General or the fact that the steps Iran took might have caused suspicions. If Iran has the intention to produce nuclear weapons with the knowhow and technology at its disposal, there is no need to rely on further information to understand that Iran is not far away from achieving this.  

If Iran does not have any intention to produce nuclear weapons, at it states itself, it has to accept the inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency by passing them through its parliament; or in case there is the possibility of not passing them through the parliament, it needs to allow the inspections as if they were passed through the parliament.  

Many intellectuals Iran voice their criticisms that the NPT restricts Iran in many different ways. However, in my conversations with Iranian intellectuals I noticed that there is a view shared by Iranian intellectuals that Iran does not have any security problem to solve without nuclear weapons. According to this line of thinking, India and Pakistan developed nuclear weapons thinking that India would prey to Chinese influence if it did not have nuclear weapons, just as Pakistan would remain weak against India if it did not have nuclear weapons. Bhutto said “we can even eat grass but we produce this weapon”. Israel chose this option even before its foundation. Ben-Gurion and Shimon Perez conducted the planning of this process. Therefore, the need to rely on nuclear weapons for their survival might be a well understandable and explainable situation on their part. However, neither Iran’s geographical location nor its conventional, chemical or ballistic missiles would justify the view that Iran would not have any deterrent capability without having nuclear weapons.  Besides, Iran does not have any time limitation (pressure) to produce nuclear weapons. Another point that needs to be mentioned is that Iran ascribes to itself an historical role. This role is to become not only a regional but global power.  Therefore, Iran views possessing nuclear weapons as a must in order to achieve this role. This power entails not only the armed power that nuclear weapons would bring with them but also the psychology and prestige of having nuclear weapons.     


* This document is the summary of the speech delivered by Prof. Dr. Mustafa Kibaroğlu on the occasion of the seminar titled “Iran’s Nuclear Program and Turkey” organized in Bilgesam (Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies) on 30 November 2012.

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